Why does Scotland celebrate Hogamany? origins of the name and Scottish New Year traditions explained

Edinburgh's city-wide Hogmanay celebration is renowned across the country. Picture: Shutterstock
Edinburgh's city-wide Hogmanay celebration is renowned across the country. Picture: Shutterstock
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Nobody knows how to ring in the New Year better than the Scots

From the midnight dram to the sound of Auld Lang Syne ringing out through the streets, Scottish culture has exerted an influence on how people celebrate New Year’s Eve around the world.

Scotland's Norse roots come to the fore around New Year's Eve. Picture: Shutterstock

Scotland's Norse roots come to the fore around New Year's Eve. Picture: Shutterstock

At the same time, we have also kept a few traditions just for ourselves.

Read More: Where is Jackie Bird? Why the legendary anchor is not hosting the BBC’s Hogmanay show tonight - and who’s replacing her

What does Hogmanay mean?

The word “Hogmanany” is instantly understood across Scotland, even if it has never made it into the parlance of people beyond our borders.

From coast to coast, Hogmanay is the biggest night of the year in Scotland. Picture: Shutterstock

From coast to coast, Hogmanay is the biggest night of the year in Scotland. Picture: Shutterstock

Oddly enough, no-one is entirely sure where the word actually comes from.

Some think it may be of Norman French descent, noting its similarity to the French phrases “Homme est né” meaning “Man is born”, “Au gui mener” which means “lead to mistletoe” and “à gueux mener” which translates as “bring to the beggars”.

It has also been suggested that the name might come from a corrupted form of the Greek term “agía míne” which means “holy month.”

The first recording of it in English comes from Elgin in 1604, written as “hagmonay”. Other spellings have included “Hagmena”, “Hogmynae” and “Hagmane”.

Scotland's tradition of Hogmanay parties

Wherever the term itself comes from, the wild celebrations the Scots throw to ring in the New Year can be traced all the way back to the Vikings and their similarly hot-blooded Winter Solstice blow-outs.

Events like Stonehaven’s fireball ceremony and the torchlight parades you’ll find across the country highlight Hogmanay’s Norse roots – fire was traditionally used during the solstice to symbolise the rejuvenation of the sun and the victory of light over darkness.

Read more: Pictures show spectacular scenes in Edinburgh as 40,000 gather for magical Torchlight Procession

One of the reasons Hogmanay remains such a major event in Scotland compared to other parts of the world is the Reformation, which saw Christmas celebrations essentially banned for over 300 years because it was viewed as a Catholic holiday.

With Christmas cancelled and a cold winter to endure, it just made sense to go all out for the New Year.

What are "The Bells?"

Another piece of our festive vocabulary which has remained a mostly Scottish phenomenon is “the bells”, referring of course to the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve.

Unlike “Hogmanay”, the etymology of this phrase is much clearer – it comes from the sound that the local church bells would make as midnight arrived.

One Scottish superstition commands that all debts be paid before the bells sound out on Hogmanay night – otherwise the following year is sure to be filled with misfortune.

Why First Footing brings good luck

Speaking of superstitions – the best way to invoke good luck for the coming year is by welcoming a first footer into your home.

The tradition of welcoming somebody - be they a friend or stranger – in to share a drink with you as the new year begins has long been believed to be the best way to begin the year with good luck.

However, there are certain stipulations. Ideally the first footer should be a dark-haired man – fair-haired visitors were traditionally likely to be Vikings whose arrival was seldom good luck for those whose door they came knocking on.

Women, red-haired people and doctors have also been said to make unlucky first-footers for one reason or another.

It is also imperative that the first-footer doesn’t turn up empty-handed.

Traditionally, they would arrive loaded with a coin, bread, salt, a lump of coal, and whisky - gifts representing all the things the new year would hopefully bring, such as prosperity, food, flavour, warmth and good cheer.

Read More: What is first footing? where the Scottish Hogmanay tradition comes from and common first footing gifts

Singing Auld Lang Syne

Perhaps no New Year’s tradition has become such a global phenomenon as serenading the newborn year with a rousing verse of Auld Land Syne.

Immortalised in films like When Harry Met Sally, this old Scottish song can be heard ringing out across the world come New Year’s Eve.

Auld Lang Syne itself goes back hundreds of years. Legendary Scots poet Robert Burns is credited with writing the lyrics, although he claimed to have mostly collected them from older folk singers.

It makes for a fitting end to any year – asking that old times and old friendships are not forgotten while re-affirming our sense of community and togetherness by calling us to take hands, sing, dance and drink together just as those who came before did.

Read More: Auld Lang Syne lyrics: history and meaning of the Robert Burns song and why we sing it on New Year’s Eve